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The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen

Warning: this is a very cranky column. It had its genesis at a very bad Internet conference, after a very bad lunch of slippery chicken and limp asparagus. A group of presenters were sitting around the table, drinking coffee and dreading their inevitable return to the conference room. Since everyone seemed to be in a bad mood, I tossed out a conversation topic designed to engage the misanthrope in everyone: What is your biggest Web pet peeve? What is it about a Web site that drives you away and turns you into a noncustomer for life?

Everyone at the table -- site managers for companies big and small, Web developers and consultants -- perked up and began tossing out their least-favourite features and bugs. We went on for so long that we had to be dragged back into the conference room. In the weeks that followed, I began collecting pet peeves from other experts in the industry.

"If your site contains too many of these pet peeves, the end result is a bad taste in the user's mouth," says Stephan Spencer, founder and president of Internet Concepts LLC, a Web design boutique in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of the participants in that lunchtime gripefest. "Users won't come back, and even worse, they'll probably tell some friends how bad your site is. It has an exponential effect."

So below I present The Main Attraction's Dirty Dozen. Some are my own, some are from my survey of well-regarded kvetchers. Ignore them at your peril.

1. Stale content. "To me, there's nothing more off-putting than a Web site with overtly outdated material," says Sam Birger, president of Nomenon, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, naming agency. "You find notices of product releases 'to come', which have actually been out for years, or boasts of businesses celebrating their upcoming fifth anniversaries in 1997." There are few better ways to show users that you don't care about the Web as a communication vehicle than by operating that kind of "cobweb" site, where no one is responsible for keeping the content fresh.

2. Fouled-up forms. "My pet peeve is when you fill out an unbelievably long form, only to get a message that says, 'Never mind', and it wipes out all your information," says Kathy Biro, chief executive of Strategic Interactive Group, a Web developer in Boston that works with clients like Dell Computer, Kraft Foods and Federal Express.

"On E*Trade, you can spend the better part of an afternoon filling out a form, only to get the missive, 'Server is busy, try again later', and everything you've input is gone." Forms-processing engines should save all information that users key in, and they should be intelligent enough to correct minor errors, such as when users deploy dashes instead of spaces in a credit card number or use "9" instead of "09" to represent September in a date field.

3. Inconsistent navigation. Marc Poirier, a general partner with CMGI affiliate @Ventures, an Andover, Massachusetts, venture capital firm, is miffed by sites that don't have a consistently presented set of navigation tools. "You drill down to inner pages, and you get to a point where you can't get back to a main page because there are no longer any links to the major site areas; the only way back is to hit your browser's Back button five or six times. Who has time for that?" he asks.

And while we're on the topic of navigation, Spencer of Internet Concepts says he gets frustrated when he encounters sites that sport navigation menus with more than 10 items or pages that offer more than two navigation menus. "If you have a menu on the left, a menu on the right and a menu on the top," he says, "you haven't thought through your design issues well enough."

4. Slo-o-o-o-w pages. No one likes a slow site, and most of the people I spoke with blame the lag on an overuse of graphics. "With two-thirds of Internet users still dialling up by modem, heavy graphics and applets are often a waste," says James Chung, CEO of Beansprout Networks, an Arlington, Massachusetts, company that is developing an online network for parents, paediatricians and child-care providers. "And with many sites constructing customised pages on the fly, slow server response times dampen user interest." In the 1957 classic The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E B White advise writers to omit needless words. The Web site corollary to that: omit needless graphics.

A few related nuisances that slow a surfer's progress include music that starts automatically, gratuitous animations, pop-up browser windows that reproduce like Tribbles and "splash screens" that users must view every time they enter your site.

5. Irrelevant (or missing) page titles. There's a reason the title tag exists in HTML. It gives every page a distinctive title, a point that many sites miss. At Wired Digital's Wired News -- a site that devotes itself to the examination of trends in technology -- pages bear nondescript titles such as "Business News from Wired News" rather than tell you what the story's actually about ("Amazon, Sotheby's Plan Site", for example). That creates a problem when users bookmark those pages; it's nearly impossible to remember what's on the page when you see a vague title in your list of bookmarks, and that discourages people from returning.

Also, when search engines index the site, they typically grab the page title and show that to users in a list of results. A title that says "Acme.com" won't attract nearly as many users as one that says "Acme.com -- Products -- Roadrunner traps -- Pricing".

6. The virtual company. This one tops my personal list: sites that don't list any real-world address or phone number for the company. I understand that companies are worried about generating more phone calls than they can handle, but they're also thwarting calls from potential customers, business partners and, yes, journalists.

Barry Star, chairman and founder at OneCore.com, shares my pain. He gets peeved "when I want to give a company business, but I can't reach them other than by a Web form. I recently tried to enquire about advertising on a site in a short time frame and absolutely could not find a phone number to call a live body. It blows my mind."

OneCore sets a great example. Click "Contact" on the home page, and you'll find the company's address, phone and fax number, and directions to its Woburn, Massachusetts, headquarters.

7. Pages that cannot be bookmarked. Companies that use frames to make their site easier to navigate create an entirely new problem. Users can't bookmark the pages they want, and they can't mail a specific URL to colleagues to point them to a particular product page, for example. Forcing users to come in through the front page of your site vastly diminishes its usefulness.

8. No response (or slow response) to e-mails. Nothing turns off users quite like sending e-mails into a black hole.

9. No prominent search option. Internet Concepts' Spencer points out that many Web users are "search dominant". Rather than clicking through every page of your site, they want a search engine to scour the contents for information that's relevant to them. Putting a search box on your home page makes that simple. Webmasters of small sites may find it makes more sense to build a site map or index page to give visitors a comprehensive overview.

10. Password problems. "If I sign up for a site and I have to pick a new user name and a new password, the odds are pretty low that I'm going to remember what I picked," says Jennifer Moss, an executive vice president at Zcentral.com, a division of SDN Online, an online organiser in Hollywood, California. "If they don't send me an e-mail reminding me what I picked, it's very unlikely I'll go back to that site. If I do, I'll have to spend time registering again." Moss, who in her spare time runs a popular parenting site called Babynames.com, says that using cookies to store user names and passwords on the visitor's computer is one solution, and she predicts that before long sites will accept some kind of universal Web identification card.

11. Subpar shopping carts. More annoying than picking the one shopping cart with the wobbly wheel at the supermarket are some of the problems you can encounter with online shopping carts, which let you collect items for eventual purchase. Some sites forget what was in your shopping cart if you leave briefly and then return; others make it too complex to add and remove items, says David Caddis, a vice president of response time management and technology at Candle Corporation in Santa Monica, California. "A lot of sites make using the cart a very tedious process," he says. "That discourages people from buying, and it limits the number of things they want to buy."

12. Channel disconnect. Can your telephone reps help customers with a transaction that began on the Web site? Can your retail staffers handle a return of merchandise that was purchased online? Does your site point customers with more sophisticated needs to a local distributor or reseller? Few companies offer a seamless experience to customers who need to deal with two or more channels of distribution, says Patricia Seybold, author of Customers.Com: How to Create a Profitable Business Strategy for the Internet and Beyond (Times Books, 1998) and founder and CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group, an e-business consultancy in Boston.

"We're in a multichannel world, and you need to have a 360-degree view of the customer across all your channels," Seybold says. "The customer will decide -- based on convenience -- with which channel or channels they want to deal," she says.

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